Monday, January 5, 2009

Leading in Uncertain Times

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article, "How to Protect Your Job in a Recession" (September 2008).

During tough times, many people get so worried about their job that they loose focus on their work. They update their resume, stop going to office events, stop questioning and challenging work processes out of fear of rocking the boat. They face inward when they should face outward. This is the opportunity for a leader to increase engagement.

When you read this article, you think about the things an individual can do to improve individual value and increase the odds of surviving a downturn, like being optimistic, focusing on customers and volunteering for tasks and projects beyond your job description. But when you put on your leadership hat, you see the advice in a different light, as a list of leadership behaviors. I am reminded of the work of Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge) in which they declare, “Leaderships is everyone’s business.”

Not all individual contributors realize that they are or can be leaders, so leading in tough times requires us to develop this belief and to help identify opportunities in which people can exhibit leadership, high performance and engagement beyond their job description.

Developing the Belief
There are many ways in which we can develop the belief in people that they are leaders. We can speak candidly with a balance between cold-hard reality and optimistic focus on customers, offering genuine support and belief in their abilities, and recognizing actions taken to face outward and increase the number of hats they wear.

Identify Opportunities
Leaders cannot force a horse to drink, but he/she can lead a horse to water by communicating the importance of being more involved and helping to create and/or identify opportunities for which people can engage. It is a leader’s job to help people realize the myriad opportunities beyond job descriptions in which they can expand horizons, create value and demonstrate leadership.

Individuals are responsible for their own lives and in the end, must believe in themselves and open the door when opportunity knocks, but a leader’s role in tough times is to make additional efforts to help people realize this.

I recommend reading this article and having your people read it too.

I also recommend that you ask everyone who works for you to read the Ken Blanchard book, “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager." It is a short, easy to read and entertaining way to learn about being a leader. The most powerful part of this book is the section on assumed constraints, which helps people realize most the constraints people perceive as keeping them from leading are assumed and self-imposed. A hard pill to swallow for some.

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